Isaac Herzog wants ‘NATO-like’ alliance of Israel and moderate Arab states

Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaking at the party's convention In Tel Aviv, Nov. 8, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

NEW YORK (JTA) – In the mind of Israel’s opposition leader, Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog, the array of threats in the Middle East these days present Israel with a historic opportunity.

Yes, Palestinians are stabbing Israelis daily. Yes, Israel arguably has its most right-wing government since Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, in the late 1990s. Yes, Obama administration officials conceded last week that they have given up on achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal during the remainder of the president’s term, which ends in January 2017.

But in Herzog’s view, the rise of the Islamic State and the threat of a nuclear Iran offer an extraordinary opportunity for a “NATO-like” alliance of Israel and moderate Arab states.

Given their common enemies and interests, Herzog says, the Jewish state can work with Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and others to curb the expansion of Iranian power, contain the Islamic State, facilitate intelligence sharing, and propel Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

“Despite the fact that we’re in a terror wave of stabbings and throwings of stones and casualties and another painful moment between Jew and Arab in the Holy Land, despite all of that we must look beyond that and take steps that can change the course of history in the region,” Herzog told a group of reporters Wednesday in a meeting in Manhattan organized by the Israel Policy Forum.

“There is a unique opportunity in this region, which stands from a convergence of interests between moderate Arab states that surround us – some of them our immediate neighbors, such as Egypt and Jordan, together with nations such as Morocco, or Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and others – who have common interests by the fact that they are seeing ISIL as a major threat and they see Iran as a major threat and they share a common interest with Israel,” he said.

The question for Herzog is: What’s his game plan for getting from here to there?

Netanyahu has a firm grip on power, Labor has won the premiership only once since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago, and Israel’s demographic trends bode ill for the left wing. The right-leaning haredi Orthodox represent the fastest-growing segment of the population, most of the 1 million Russian-speaking immigrants who came to Israel in the 1990s are hawkish and the liberal Israelis of metropolitan Tel Aviv increasingly have been splitting their vote between Labor and parties that focus on socioeconomic issues, like Yesh Atid.

Asked by JTA about his strategy for future electoral success given these trends, Herzog argued that Israelis would eventually wake up to the fact that Netanyahu’s approach of “living by the sword” alone is not sustainable. But he offered little by way of a road map for how he would translate that recognition into votes for Labor.

And paradoxically, though he described Netanyahu on Wednesday as totally lacking a vision of hope for Israel, Herzog said he wouldn’t rule out supporting Netanyahu if the prime minister made a bid for a “historic change” in the region.

Herzog left open the question of the likelihood of Netanyahu taking such a step. For all his experience dealing with, running against and responding to Netanyahu, Herzog still doesn’t seem to have the prime minister figured out.

Herzog didn’t give Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a free pass, calling him a “complicated and difficult person.” But Herzog insisted that Abbas nonetheless “stands up against terror.”

As for how Herzog would jump-start the peace process, he said he would freeze settlement building outside the large settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep as part of a final-status agreement, go speak at the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah and demonstrate that the two sides “understand each other’s pain.”

In any final-status accord, Herzog said, there should be mutual recognition of each other’s nation-states and ironclad security arrangements for both sides. That includes, he noted, Israel keeping the Jordan River Valley as a security corridor.

Herzog came to the United States to speak at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, D.C., and for a United Nations event here marking the 40th anniversary of the infamous “Zionism equals racism” resolution. Herzog’s late father, Chaim Herzog, who was Israel’s U.N. ambassador at the time, famously tore up a copy of the resolution in his  speech that day to the U.N. General Assembly.

Though Herzog’s U.S. visit this week received far less attention than Netanyahu’s, the opposition leader refuses to stop talking about his alternative vision for Israel.

“I, as leader of the opposition, keep on saying time and again I’m not willing to give up,” Herzog said. “I am not willing to say that there is no hope. We must move on, try again.

“Despite the fact that now it looks gloomy, sad and horrific, despite the fact that 12-year-old stabs 12-year old, despite the fact that there is endless brainwashing and hate and the relationship between Jew and Arab is at one of its lowest points, nonetheless one has to create hope.”